Friday, October 26, 2007

WH cut domestic spying deal: Documents for Telecom Immunity

Surprise, surprise. In order to protect their partners in crime - the telecomm industry - the White House cut a deal with select members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In exchange for giving the telcomm industry rectroactive immunity from prosecution for giving up customers' private personal information to the government, members got to actually view documents related to the illegal wiretapping program they had yet to see! How kind of the administration!

Thankfully, Judiciary Committee Chair Pat Leahy, nor the ranking member, Arlen Specter, are to keen on this quid pro quo.

The Washington Post reports:

Senate Judiciary Committee members yesterday angrily accused the White House of allowing the Senate Intelligence Committee to review documents on its warrantless surveillance program in return for agreeing that telecommunications companies should get immunity from lawsuits.


At issue is a White House-endorsed measure that would give immunity to telecom carriers being sued for allegedly helping the National Security Agency spy on Americans after September 11, 2001. It is part of a larger bill to rework the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Intelligence Committee has approved the bill and sent it to the Judiciary Committee for deliberation.


Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary panels, said in an interview yesterday that the documents revealed that the NSA program was illegal. He said the presidential authorizations and the Justice Department opinions do not make it legal. "That makes it an executive power grab that is not justified by the statute or by the Constitution," he said.


Everything he saw and reported to me would indicate that the terrorist surveillance program involved was illegal and not something permissible given the clear exclusivity language in the statute," said Feingold, referring to current law, which specifies that FISA, along with Title III of the 1968 Wiretap Act, shall be the "exclusive" means to authorize domestic wiretaps. Feingold voted against the bill, which would allow the government to begin wiretaps of foreign targets and then seek FISA court approval of the targeting procedures...Feingold said that the documents revealed "the absence of a legitimate justification under the law" for the program.

Washington Post blogger Andrew Cohen sums up the shady backdoor dealings aptly:

What a warped world...the White House may have selectively shared sensitive information about its warrantless surveillance program based on which lawmakers supported legal immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with the legally dubious program.


To make a questionable situation all the more distasteful, the New York Times reported yesterday that Senate Intelligence Chair John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) received tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from telecom executives. Did Rockefeller become one of the strongest supporters of immunity because of White House pressure? Or did he take that position to appease his contributors? Either way, it doesn't look good.


Lawmakers must ensure that their new surveillance bill has better judicial and congressional oversight than the previous version. They should also consider whether there is a compelling reason to protect the assets of big corporations at the expense of individual privacy. This story, though, is rapidly becoming a symbol for all that is wrong with the legal war on terror.

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